Assemblyman Dov Hikind and former mayor Ed Koch played essential roles in your election, highlighting Obama’s Israel policies to Jewish voters. Can you point to any significant change in the Obama administration’s approach to Israel as a result of your victory?
It’s very tough to know his motivation. We know that right after this victory he gave his most pro-Israel speech at the UN. Ed Koch seemed to think that this victory had a lot to do with it. I would agree. Now it has to stick in terms of policy. Diplomatically Israel and the United States could be a lot closer. Our intelligence communities work extremely well together, our defense cooperation is first rate, and Israelis will tell you the same thing. Diplomatically, and this has enormous consequences, when Obama snubs Netanyahu, that weakens Israel’s hand. It has real consequences. There’s where we need to improve the president’s position.
There is a strong belief among many of Israel’s most committed American supporters that the Republicans are to be trusted more than the Democrats where Israel is concerned.
I agree. The Democrats are getting more consolidated with a stronger far-left bias. And I don’t think that’s a group to be trusted with Israel’s security. The party that I knew is hardly there anymore. It’s dominated by some of the strongest labor unions and various groups that advance a leftist, one world, socialist agenda. That’s becoming the heart of the party, and I hope they can fix it. If they can’t, it would be a detriment not only to the Democratic Party but to the whole country. I think the left is becoming more vocal and shrill, screaming that they’re being polarized by the rest of us. I hope people begin to see through that. The Democratic Party is saddled with these guys, and Obama does some of the things he does to satisfy that wing of the party. He’s a very political person.
Newt Gingrich publicly called the Palestinians “an invented people.” Do you agree with that statement and to what end do you think the Israelis should pursue this line of argument in dealing with the Palestinians?
Newt knows the history of this term “Palestinian,” the ethnicity of this people. Historically he’s correct. Politically, diplomatically, it’s too late. I don’t think there is much to be gained by pursuing that, but it’s important to recognize it, maybe as part of exposing the attempts by the left and the Muslim world to delegitimize Israel. They talk of Israel as if it were an invented state, ignoring their real history and their ethnic roots to the land under their feet.
You just returned from a trip to Israel. You’ve been there before, but how did seeing the facts on the ground as an elected official change or solidify your view of Israel and its security needs?
This time I met people at all levels and all locations. I met the prime minister, the defense minister. I went all over the place, even to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. I was in Israel eleven years ago, right at the beginning of the Intifada. Security at that point was at a heightened level. Today one can go just about anywhere – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, Masada. You don’t see security; it’s invisible. You could be in Miami.
And there’s a sense of optimism that I think is part of a natural Israeli mindset. They are confronted with a series of problems and they figure out how to deal with them. I was at Sderot, where the rockets are being fired. They responded with shelters and drones but more importantly the Iron Dome missile anti-rocket system, which they have perfected in an incredibly short time. They work out of necessity, but they have the confidence that they can handle what’s thrown at them. And they’re good.
After speaking with your Israeli counterparts in the Knesset, what impression do you have of the current American-Israeli relationship?
I saw that military cooperation is at a very high level, also in the area of intelligence sharing. Economically the investments in technology and start-ups are ideal. There is and has been a weakness in diplomacy. I think some of the early missteps of the Obama administration have been a real problem. But Israel sees a need for American support, and America sees a need for Israel as a strategic partner. We have common enemies, and our common cultural values are very important.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently called Israeli settlements in the West Bank “deliberate vandalism.” Did you visit those settlements, and how would you describe them?
I think that statement is absurd. They’re suburban housing – lovely, sophisticated, planned communities. I visited these communities, some around Jerusalem, and they are just a natural outgrowth and extension of a thriving city. It’s important to note too that the so-called housing freeze was supposed to be imposed on everyone, and I have yet to hear any criticism of the Palestinian developments, which are far more extensive than anything the Israelis have done.